AARON Shipanga made headlines as the young barefooted long-distance runner from Tsumeb who outclassed seasoned runners during the mid-80s and 90s.
He entered the local athletics scene like a house on fire in 1985 and even obtained his junior South West Africa colours in the same year when he went to compete in the under-15 marathon championship in Durban, South Africa.
Shipanga competed in the cross country, 10 000m, 15km and the 21km kilometre races but it was not long before he started to specialise in the 42km run.
He started running at Opawa Primary School under the tutelage of one Nico Kaiyamo before he took his talent to Oshikoto Secondary School where he was trained by the seasoned athletics coach Adios Auchamub.
However, his school career was abruptly cut short in 1998 after he was offered a job by the then Ongopolo Mine, an offer he took up without any hesitation.
“The offer sounded like manna from heaven and it didn’t take long for me to make up my mind because of the situation at home. I came from a humble and very poor background and my parents struggled to make ends meet during that time.
“The only difficult part was to convince my parents to let me drop out from school and to go work at the mine. It was common practice that the big mines used to recruit top athletes around the country during that time as employees,” Shipanga noted.
Subsequently he joined the Tsumeb Corporation Limited Mine long distance runners’ team that participated in the Inter-Mines Athletics Championships against other big mines like Rossing Uranium Limited, CDM Mine and Rosh Pinah Mine.
He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Frank Kayele, Moses Tsam, Lisias Hangula, Gotty Ndjendjela, who is now the councillor of Tsumeb and the two late former veteran runners Lucas Halweendo and Mario Hailonga.
“I was still very young at the time but training and running against those big guns made me a better runner and soon I started winning races of my own from 1989 until 1999. I started representing Namibia in Africa after independence.
“I have seen countries I only dreamt about because of athletics and I trained very hard to be on top of my game. I went to compete against the very top athletes from around the continent and I also went to run in Italy,” Shipanga says.
The three-time Junior Sportsman of the Year award nominee, dominated the Dolphin Marathon at Swakopmund from 1987 to 1999 and he describes the 4th place finish in the Moroccan Marathon in a time of 2 hours and six minutes in 2000 as one of his best races ever.
He also competed in Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa where he raced regularly and also clinched his only race on foreign soil when he won the Namaqualand Marathon in 1989.
“Important to mention the fact that we were a very tight group of athletes before independence and we didn’t endure any signs racial discrimination among us because some of us were also invited to participate in events like the duathlon and the triathlon.
“I was not strong in middle distances and I only participated because of the prize money and it was also good to help me build my speed. I had a brilliant coach in (Adios) Aochamub and we had a wonderful time together,” he enthused.
He says it was an uphill battle to compete against athletes from East Africa because they train the whole day whereas Namibians only trained for about three hours after work, except for the 45 minutes run before work.
Shipanga took charge as the chairperson of Benfica FC in 2002, the year he retired from running, until 2018 before the leagues were suspended across the country.
The football leagues have resumed now and he was tasked again to chair the former Metropolitan Champions whom he helped to regain their Namibia Premier League status during the 2014-2015 season.
Benfica are languishing in the second division and they have asked Shipanga, to lead them again.
Shipanga married Veronica Shipanga in 2002 and they have three boys. Aaron, the eldest, is 16 and he plays football for his school team at Otjiwarongo.
The second, Matthew, is 12 while the youngest Shipi, is four years old.
The former Tsumeb whirlwind is employed as a plant operator by Dundee Precious Metal and works at the smelter at Tsumeb.
Says Shipanga: “First the operators use heat and a chemical reducing agent to break the ore, driving off other elements as gasses or slag and leaving just the metal. Smelting is a form of extractive metallurgy to produce a metal from its ore.
“My duty is to filter the copper concentrate from the water and we process it into a cake form. We then send the processed copper to the other plant where the operators melt it before they export it, mainly to Bulgaria and Canada.”
The biggest challenges he faces in his job, is that like at any other mine in the country, Dundee also has to adhere to the Covid-19 protocols.
Shipanga, who started working at Dundee in 2000, is however quick to add that the safety aspect of the workers is definitively top priority for the mine management with the renowned Ali Kasete at the helm.
In the smelling process, either hot calcine from the roaster or raw unroasted concentrate is melted with siliceous flux in a smelting furnace to produce copper matte.
The required heat comes from partial oxidation of the sulphide charge and from burning external fuel.
He said that he owes his athletics success to former Namibian marathon champion Frank Kayele who pushed him in order to get the best out of him and Abraham Jockey Baseko, who was the sports officer of TCL at the time.
In addition to his work at the mine, the former Highlands Park striker also owns two car wash ventures: one at the Pick n Pay shopping complex and the second one near Cymot.
“I am not sleeping on my bread,” he says. I am farming with goats, sheep and cattle on a farm situated on the Tsintsabis road as well. I am also planning to start chicken farming by August.”
He admits that he misses his old grueling training regimen and he is happy he was success driven and he made sure he was 100% fit before every race.
He explained that their will to succeed was evident from the fact that he and his teammates never drank too much alcohol but only a single glass of beer after a race.
Shipanga confirms that he is currently living his dream: “This is exactly how I wanted my life to be. I mean really, I am married, have three boys and I even have my own car. I have two businesses and a few farm animals.
“I am living a responsible and respectable life and I have a stable job. More so, I am proud I didn’t end up drinking tombo on the streets like some of my friends from my neighborhood did.”
Are you still in touch with some of your former national and club teammates?
Shipanga says he is still in touch with former running-mates like Joseph Tjitunga, Esther Haixwema, Laina Petrus, Bertha Naigambo and the selfless Kayele who used to invite him and the other less fortunate runners to his house for food.
His advice to young runners is to be passionate with what they do in order to climb the ladder of success.
“Remember success goes hand in hand with discipline. You can only be a good runner for at least 10 years but with no discipline and determination to succeed, you won’t go far,” he says.